- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 4, 2010

While saying organized labor will not wield veto power over pending George W. Bush-era free-trade agreements, U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk would hold out only a heavily conditional hope that Congress might consider the trade pacts by the end of the year.

When testifying about U.S. trade policy before the Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday, Mr. Kirk received bipartisan pressure to speed up the deals with Panama, Colombia and South Korea from the panel’s two top members - Chairman Max Baucus and ranking member Charles E. Grassley.

The United States “should approve the trade agreements that we have already negotiated and signed,” said Mr. Baucus, Montana Democrat. “We must address the remaining obstacles to these agreements. But we must also recognize the consequences of further delay.”

“This delay in implementation hurts U.S. credibility around the world, not just economically, but geopolitically as well,” Mr. Grassley, Iowa Republican, told Mr. Kirk.

The two senators reminded Mr. Kirk that South Korea already had inked a trade deal with the European Union, while Colombia had signed agreements with Canada and the European Union.

Later, while discussing trade policy with reporters at a luncheon hosted by the Christian Science Monitor, Mr. Kirk expressed some optimism.

“I believe there is enough value in [the pacts with] Panama and Colombia, particularly since we have already granted duty-free status to goods” from both countries, Mr. Kirk said. “You just can’t make a credible case to deny us the return investment.”

Saying he hasn’t given up on any of the three pending pacts, he predicted “pretty good bipartisan support” in Congress, but only “if we can get them right.”

Throughout the presidential campaign, to cheers from the labor movement, Mr. Obama vigorously opposed all three free-trade agreements, which were negotiated by the Bush administration.

Citing violence against labor leaders, he opposed the Colombian agreement, which was signed in November 2006. Autos and beef are the main stumbling blocks with the South Korean agreement, which was signed in June 2007. Labor and tax-haven issues have bogged down the agreement with Panama, which also was signed in June 2007.

Reminded of labor’s staunch opposition to free-trade agreements approved in the past, Mr. Kirk said, “Labor does not have a veto over the Obama administration’s trade policy, but labor absolutely has a voice and a seat at the table.”

Asked whether the administration could move the free-trade pacts through Congress without labor’s support, he replied, “We’ll see.”

Even in an environment in which unemployment is expected to remain around the 10 percent mark throughout this year, Mr. Kirk said “it’s not unlikely” that Congress would still consider the pending pacts.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which backs free trade, was cautiously optimistic.

“We’re very pleased with what we’ve heard from the administration,” said Christopher Wenk, senior director for international policy at the Chamber. “But we still need to see concrete actions.”

Mr. Wenk said policymakers face “political timing issues.” Unless Congress considers one of the agreements before the Memorial Day break, he doesn’t expect any to come into play until after the November elections.

“There are windows of opportunity,” he said, “but nothing has been teed up yet.”

Mr. Obama’s first major trade initiative in his own right will focus on his proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement. Negotiators from the United States, New Zealand, Australia, Peru, Vietnam, Chile, Singapore and Brunei will convene in Melbourne, Australia, on March 15 in the first round of talks.

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